New NYT public editor knows what it’s like to be in the hot seat

Nieman Reports
Buffalo News Editor Margaret M. Sullivan, named Monday as the next public editor for The New York Times, writes in the latest issue of Nieman Reports about how she dealt with outrage in Buffalo’s black community that resulted from her paper’s reporting. The essay provides some insight into how she thinks a newspaper should handle public outcry over its reporting — the sort of thing she’ll keep an eye on and be subject to at the Times.

In August 2010, Sullivan writes, eight people were shot at a party in Buffalo; four of them died. All of the victims were black, as was a man who was later convicted of murder.

About a week after the shooting and the same day that the News covered the funeral of one of the victims, the paper published a front-page story with the headline ”7 of 8 shooting victims had criminal past.”

Sullivan thought the story shed light on what had happened that night:

The story went to great lengths to make the point that no one intended to blame the victims. The first quote was from a local criminal justice professor who, after noting that a felony prosecution or conviction increases the statistical likelihood of becoming a crime victim, said, “It doesn’t mean that the people deserved it or in any way had it coming.”

But many members of the black community were enraged. A few days after the story ran, a former gang member turned community activist, Darnell Jackson, led a protest outside the News building… One by one, copies of the paper with the controversial article were tossed onto a trash-can fire.

Sullivan agreed to speak at a community meeting at a local church, where 700 people showed up to hear a dozen or so speakers criticize her and the newspaper.

That evening was one of the most difficult times of my life. The sheer disconnect between a large segment of the community and its newspaper stunned me, as did the depth and intensity of the people’s anger.

As I wrote in a News column a few weeks later: “I can say, without exaggeration, that I left that meeting both shaken and changed. I still believe The News was right to publish the story because it exposed an important piece of the puzzle about that tragic shooting. But its timing and placement should have been handled more sensitively and more respectfully.”

Sullivan goes on to describe the steps that her newspaper has taken since then to build relationships with Buffalo’s black community, including regular meetings of a diversity advisory council.

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